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Google dubs Oracle suit 'attack on Java community'

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Google has called Oracle's Android lawsuit an attack not only on Google but also on the open-source Java community.

"We are disappointed Oracle has chosen to attack both Google and the open-source Java community with this baseless lawsuit," a company spokesman said in a statement to USA Today. "The open-source Java community goes beyond any one corporation and works every day to make the web a better place. We will strongly defend open-source standards and will continue to work with the industry to develop the Android platform."

Despite repeated requests, however, Google has not verified this statement with The Register.

On Thursday, Oracle filed a complaint in a Northern California federal court accusing Google of deliberately infringing various Java-related patents and copyrights that Oracle acquired with its purchase of Sun Microsystems. The suit asserts seven patents, claiming infringement by Android, including Android's Dalvik virtual machine and the Android software development kit.

It's unclear whether Oracle is attacking open source code used by Google, but it would appear so. "Even if some Android-based or Android-related products may include components that don't meet open-source criteria," reads a blog post from noted open source advocate Florian Muller, "I find it impossible to imagine that the patents Oracle tries to enforce here would be infringed only by closed-source components and not by Android's many open-source components. Therefore, I consider this a patent attack on free software and open source."

Judging from its statement, Google seems to agree.

Muller sees Oracle's suit as just the latest indication that the biggest names in IT are not as wary as they once were about outright patent attacks on the open source community. "For many years it seemed that the IT giants tried to avoid patent conflicts with open source. Not anymore. After IBM's threats against TurboHercules and Steve Jobs's announcement of a patent pool to go after open source codecs, there's now Oracle's lawsuit against Google," he tells us.

According to a post from Java founder James Gosling, the suit is "not a big surprise." Apparently, Gosling saw the writing on the wall before he left Oracle. "During the integration meetings between Sun and Oracle, where we were being grilled about the patent situation between Sun and Google, we could see the Oracle lawyer's eyes sparkle."

Oracle and Google are both licensees of the Open Invention Network, a patent-sharing organization set up to protect Linux from legal attack. But this was no impediment to Oracle unloading on Android, which is, yes, a Linux distro.

“During the integration meetings between Sun and Oracle, where we were being grilled about the patent situation between Sun and Google, we could see the Oracle lawyer's eyes sparkle.”

– Java founder James Gosling

Backed by investment from IBM, NEC, Novell, Philips, Red Hat, and Sony, OIN shares its patent portfolio — royalty-free — with any company, institution, or individual that agrees not to assert its patents against what it calls the Linux System. But Florian Muller has long criticized the organization, claiming it doesn't provide the protection one would assume it does.

"I've always said that there's no evidence it has ever helped any company (the latest example is Salesforce, which apparently pays royalties to Microsoft for a variety of patents including some that rely on Linux). And I've explained in detail that the OIN doesn't truly protect all of FOSS but only an arbitrarily defined list of program files," he says.

"Oracle's lawsuit against Google is the strongest evidence that my concerns about the Open Invention Network are well-founded. Both Oracle and Google are OIN licensees, so in theory there is a non-aggression pact in place between them, but everyone can see that Oracle sues Google anyway because the OIN's scope of protection is too narrow."

OIN declined to comment on the suit. And it's unclear whether it will take action now that the suit has been filed. But Muller argues that it should have provided protection before the fact. "I've seen some open source luminaries ask the question how the OIN is going to respond to Oracle's lawsuit against Google, given that Android is a Linux distribution and should be covered," Muller tells us. "In my opinion the OIN has already failed. If it worked, Oracle would never have filed its suit in the first place. So the OIN isn't the protective shield for Linux that it claims to be."

It's also unclear how Google will ultimately respond. With its statement, it would seem that the company is hoping to rally the support of the open source Java community. But as he did when Google famously open sourced its VP8 web video codec, Muller questions how far the web giant will go to protect others who have adopted its open source technologies. "Google's statement sounds like a call for solidarity," Muller tells The Reg, "but that must go both ways: the open source community can reasonably expect Google to resolve this issue with Oracle in a way that reassures the entire Android ecosystem."

The question is whether those expectations will be met. "Google should...also take care of the entire ecosystem concerned, not only solve the problem for itself," Muller says. "I'm much more concerned about all those Android application developers and their investment of time, energy, and money. Google will survive. But the little guys must have legal certainty. I hope they won't have to rewrite existing programs."

However Google responds, James Gosling doesn't exactly support the company's approach to Java on Android. He, like so many others, bemoans the fragmentation of the Android market. "When Google came to us with their thoughts on cellphones, one of their core principles was making the platform free to handset providers," he writes in another blog post.

"They had very weak notions of interoperability, which, given our history, we strongly objected to. Android has pretty much played out the way that we feared: there is enough fragmentation among Android handsets to significantly restrict the freedom of software developers."

That said, he doesn't advocate Oracle's suit. In his mind, there are: "No guiltless parties with white hats in this little drama. This skirmish isn't much about patents or principles or programming languages. The suit is far more about ego, money and power."

There was a time when Microsoft was Java's number-one enemy. Sun sued Redmond when it tried to tie Java programs to Windows — and won. But now, Gosling says, Microsoft is as close as it gets to a white hat. "It's a sad comment on the morality of large modern software companies that Microsoft, while I don't think they've gotten any better since Sun sued them, probably has the high ground." ®

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